Know thy feline. Most cats, and especially kittens, can be trained to walk on a harness and leash.
Most will appreciate the opportunity to safely explore a new, exciting outdoor environment. But that is most cats … not all. If you suspect your cat would never in a million years be agreeable to walking on a leash, you’re probably right. But it can’t hurt to try.
Purchase a harness for the leash, not a collar. If your cat runs up a tree, a standard collar could strangle him, and a breakaway collar will detach. In addition, kitties are extremely flexible and able to fit through tiny, awkward spaces. It isn’t uncommon for cats to make like Houdini and find a way out of their collars. You don’t want this worry while you’re outdoors with your cat.
There are harnesses designed for cats, as well as walking jackets1 and kitty holsters2. The leash attachment is toward the middle on these harnesses rather than at the neck, which is much safer and less stressful for your kitty. (If you fear your cat will never take to walks outdoors but you want to give it a try, buy your gear from a retailer with a liberal return policy.)
Start slow, take baby steps forward, and expect setbacks. As anyone knows who is owned by a cat, they are not dogs and will do what they want, when they want, for however long they want. But what many cat lovers don’t realize is most kitties do actually respond to food treats, verbal praise, and praise in the form of head pats and ear scratches.
Do your training sessions when your cat is hungry. Break treats into very small pieces – your kitty’s level of cooperation will decrease in direct proportion to how quickly her tummy gets full. Cats don’t have a desire to please their humans like dogs do, so food treats are their primary incentive. To insure you don’t overfeed, limit treat-giving to training sessions.
Before you even think about stepping outside you must get your cat used to wearing the harness and leash. Put the harness on your cat, making sure it’s snug but not too tight. The second you’ve got the harness on, before you let go of her, give her a treat. If she takes a step in the harness, give her a treat, praise her and pat her on the head. Repeat the treating and praising if she continues to move about in her harness.
If instead kitty drops to the ground, wait to see if she moves and give a treat if she does. If she seems frozen in place, or if her way of freaking out is to run and hide under something, remove the harness and give a treat as a peace offering. Try leaving the harness near your cat’s food bowl at mealtime and near her favorite napping spot for a few days to get her used to seeing it in places she associates with good things.
You can also hold the harness and a few treats and when/if kitty sniffs the harness, give her a treat. Next hold the harness against her body and offer a treat. As she sniffs the treat, slowly pull the harness away and let her eat the treat.
Giving treats immediately is crucial because your cat has an attention span of mere seconds, and you want her to connect a desired action with getting a treat.
As your cat learns to tolerate the harness and leash for longer periods, give her a constant stream of verbal praise, head pats and food treats while she’s wearing it. When she’s obviously done with a training session, meaning she’s dropped to the ground, her tail is switching, ears flattened – whatever signs she normally gives that she’s no longer enjoying herself – remove the harness immediately. You want to end the session with kitty feeling confident and in control.
Once your cat is walking around in his harness and leash in a normal manner, you can step outside the door. Depending on your pet’s temperament, you could easily spend the next month just getting down the front walk or onto the grass. Or … you could be taking kitty on real nature walks in 30 days. It just depends on how easily your cat adjusts to being outdoors and tethered to you.
If your neighborhood has lots of traffic noise, dogs, or other distractions that your cat views as threatening, try taking her to a quieter area where she’s less exposed to frightening sights and sounds.
Coax your cat a little farther on each outing. When he’s eagerly exploring a new area with his tail up, take another baby step.
Make sure your kitty doesn’t pick up anything in her mouth or lick anything. And no tree climbing for leashed cats. It’s too dangerous.
Don’t tie your cat’s leash to something and leave her outside, even for a minute. If something spooks her, she could get tangled in the leash. If she’s threatened by another animal or even a person, she can’t get away. Your kitty should never be outside unattended for any reason.
Expect setbacks. Your cat might be okay in a new area on Monday and when you take him there on Tuesday, something freaks him out. Step back to the last place he was comfortable, and start moving forward with baby steps again. And unless your kitty is in harm’s way, resist the urge to pick him up if something spooks him. It’s better for his confidence if you can leave him on the ground.